FTC skate shop grew from family values
Feb 21, 2012 09:17 PM
By Joel Rice

The Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog. Fisherman's Wharf bustling with tourists. Alcatraz Island floating in a blue bay. San Francisco suffers no shortage of internationally recognized landmarks.

Likewise, when it comes to the skateboarding subculture -- whether it's Fort Miley, China Banks or the Clipper Street ledge -- few cities boast as many monuments.

And certainly one such San Francisco skateboard monument is FTC, the stalwart skate shop now in its 26th year in Haight-Ashbury.

FTC's owner, Kent Uyehara is a quintessential San Francisco native. He attended Hoover Middle School before going to Lowell High School -- a large, academically rigorous public school. While still a student at Lowell in the mid-1980s, Ueyarha began buying and selling skateboard equipment for an earlier incarnation of FTC, his parents' small ski and tennis shop, on a steep hill off Van Ness Street.

But what really established FTC as a storied institution was the critical role it played in fostering the 1990s Embarcadero scene -- a flash in skateboarding history whose reverberations are still felt today. Ueyhara was one of the first to sponsor household names such as Mike Carroll, as well as Embarcadero heavies Jovontae Turner and Henry Sanchez.

Much as shop owner Skip Engblom had nurtured a multi-ethnic, progressive, historically important group of skaters in the Dogtown and Z-boys days, Ueyhara helped write an entire chapter of skateboarding history. The first FTC videos "Finally" and "Penal Code" -- with parts from Carroll, Rick Howard, Keith Hufnagel and more underground stars such as Drake Jones and Shamil Randle -- helped define an era's soulful, urban aesthetic.

Since that fertile time FTC has grown into a global boutique brand with franchise locations in Tokyo, Barcelona and Sacramento, Calif. As the store prepares to release its fourth video, Uyehara spoke to about FTC's past, present and future. At the time of this interview Uyehara had decided to delay a snowboarding trip to Lake Tahoe, and instead prepare for a business trip to Asia. You were one of the first people to sponsor my favorite skater of all time, Jovontae Turner. Many, like Josh Kalis, still argue that Turner's 360 flips were among the best in the game. What did you see in him? Could you talk a little about what part he played in early FTC history?

Jovontae was one of the first skaters to come in the shop. It wasn't so much the skateboarding. He was so young but he had so much charisma. This was before the Embarcadero. This was the late '80s, in the days of acid drops and bonelesses. I was only 16 or 17, and he was maybe 13. I was still a timid Asian kid. I didn't have long hair. No rat tails in the back or anything. [Laughs]

But Jovontae was the first person we sponsored. He's a really social person. I said, "I want to start a skateboard team." And he put the team together for us. He grabbed Mike and Greg Carroll. The hottest new young skaters. Henry Sanchez. Rick Ibaseta. Almost all of them went pro within a year or two. We got really lucky. Skateboarding was both dead and re-emerging on the streets. FTC was just a small department in the back of a ski and tennis shop. It wasn't even a full skate store. It was just six decks stuck in the back of the store. We sold Rollerblades! But I don't think I ever got any kind of heckling.

At the same time, in 1989, Ron, the owner of Concrete Jungle [another historically significant San Francisco skate shop] was going to close his shop. He told me that the city was up for grabs and he wanted me to take over the city. He gave me his blessing. Then I met Jim Thiebaud [a Real skateboards founder and early pro] through Jovontae. Jim said, "Hey, the Jungle is closing. I am going to be your first pro rider. Is that cool? But you have to give me an ad." I was like, "No problem. We'll do it tomorrow." [Laughs]

During that era FTC's skateboarding program was still operating out of the back of your parents' store. Many of the professional skaters from that scene, such as James Kelch, were not exactly known for being mild-mannered. What was it like having these fairly outrageous or "gnarly" characters interacting with your earnest parents in a small store?

Every single one was banned from the store at one point. In general street skaters are street-smart and, if the opportunity arises, are going to test the rules. We had to let everyone understand there is trade-off. I think what made the whole system work is even though you had a bunch of street smart, hustler people in there, they actually appreciated and realized what we were doing for them. They wanted to reciprocate. I am not saying the guys didn't ever get in trouble, but with us it was very rare that there were long-term issues and problems with the team riders. We had a black book where we kept a record of all the loans and exchanges our team had. Skateboarders from all over the world helped write that book.

It really was a family atmosphere. Typical family. My father was the disciplinarian for all those guys. And my mother, Kim, was the softie, the sweetheart. I was their older brother. We did a lot of mail order back then, and people would be calling from France, Switzerland. Everyone knew Kim, as the shop mom.

My parents were always supportive of all three kids. It wasn't like I was joining a band or following Jerry [Garcia]. [Laughs]

Was there a moment where you realized that your team was really dominant in the industry?

I remember I drove all the guys to the Quartermasters contest at Powell's Skate Zone, in Santa Barbara. Mike Carroll. Jovontae Turner. I was at UCLA, so I had to fly back to the Bay Area and then drive them. We swept the contest two weekends in a row. We had never competed against teams from all across California, as a team. We won every age division. The prize for winning was a new Powell deck. That was the trophy. The next morning, after we won, every guy was in the store wanting to trade his Powell deck. That was their trophy. To them it was just product. [Laughs] I think I am the only one who still has his Powell deck on the wall.

You also were involved in mentoring a later generation of skaters on the FTC team, such as DGK CEO Stevie Williams. Could you share any stories about that relationship?

Yeah. It's a really great story. Stevie came to San Francisco very young, 13 or 14. His friends, not him, got involved in a situation one night. He basically called me after that night and said, "Hey, Kent. I was with so-and-so and we went to this warehouse. All of a sudden some friends put some boxes in the car. The owner of the company has helped me out. I feel like I'm stabbing him in the back …"

Basically I gave him words of advice. I said, "What you need to do is get on the phone and make amends. You've already taken the first step. You already feel remorse. I guarantee you right now if you call the owner he's not going to be angry at you. I know him. I know he is going to be so respectful and see you're better than all these other guys because you're not a puppet."

Sure enough everything went well. Then for some reason, over the course of the next month he went from everyone saying, "Hey stay away from this kid. He's going to be one of these SF kids, a street hustler, he's trouble …" To suddenly being sponsored by Chocolate and DC.

He told me all this good stuff happened to him because of the one conversation we had that one night.

I feel good about it. The reason I constantly think about these things is for every one kid that makes it here, there are 25 or 50 -- who try and live the dream -- that don't make it. They come to San Francisco but don't even get back to their hometown because they get too messed up. That's why I am glad to have had so many "younger brothers" that have grown up around FTC. The proudest moment is always when I see the effect we've had on people's lives. I see that people who grew up in the store have a family. They're not in jail.

If you could have any job outside of the skateboard industry what would it be?

I think I'd like to be in politics.

Are you running for office?

No. We could be having this conversation from an office in City Hall. [Laughs] But I majored in political science. We've worked with the city a lot on the skateboarding codes. A lot of them are so antiquated and so ambiguous you can basically give someone a ticket just for holding a skateboard. We're also coming very close to having a skate park built in the neighborhood. We have a pilot program right now.

FTC has been in existence for 26 years. You have seen so many trends and micro-trends come and go. Where does your drive come from?

One of the reasons FTC is still here today is that when I was a sophomore at Lowell, my dad declared bankruptcy, very unexpectedly. We basically had a 30-day eviction notice on our house. So when I was 15 years old, suddenly skateboarding became a very important part of the business.

My attitude was, "I am going to do what I can." That was why I really got involved in the business. From 15 on, I had to become responsible. I would take the bus directly from school and work 40 and 50 hours a week, Saturdays and Sundays. I made a little catalog and would sell skateboards to my friends and other kids in high school.

So that is the untold story of why FTC is here today. But hey, everybody else has a challenge they have to go through.

I always had a skateboard in my hand and it became a business. I just grew up in sports retail. I always knew how to make a buck. I always remember when I was 10 years old I wanted some spending money, so my dad put me to work in the store. My first paycheck was for $39. My dad had me do the electronic control tags for 10 cents an hour. When he gave me my first paycheck, he told me I worked so hard he was giving me a raise to 25 cents an hour. [Laughs]

But I feel that those family values really helped save the store. If FTC was run strictly as a business, on profit and loss, we would never have survived.


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